The broken wave of progress
On the morning of November 8, 2016, my wife and I and our two kids dressed in white to honor the suffragettes and went to vote for Hillary Clinton. On that rainy fall morning, it felt like the U.S. was riding a swelling wave of progress. We were still fresh from the Supreme Court decision protecting the right of all Americans to marry. Eight years earlier, we had celebrated the election of Barack Obama who had expanded healthcare and won a second term. I remember in the days after the 2008 election, sitting in a pub where stately images of Obama were flashing across the screen. A black boy, age 11 or 12, was with his family looking up at these images. This boy’s world, I thought, has been forever changed. While he will still watch television overrun by black men playing criminals, he will also have these images of Obama, a black man elected by his fellow citizens to the highest office in the land — entrusted to govern our imperfect but hopeful country.
By early evening on November 8th, the wave of progress we’d been riding had crashed. We put our kids to bed and settled down with pizza and drinks to watch the returns. The elation of the morning turned to horror as the New York Times’ hateful quivering probability needle indicated that Hillary Clinton, who had started the night with an 84% chance of winning was now almost certain to lose. My wife put her food and drink aside, curled up under the covers and went to sleep. In my own style of coping, I furiously texted with a friend who had voted for Trump, accusing him of stupidity, misogyny, and racism.
I met this friend, James, while we were pursuing our post graduate degrees. He comes from the South where he was raised to believe that his right to bear arms is the only thing protecting Americans from the overreach of a government which grows like a weed and, if unchecked, continually erodes our personal liberties. The son of mental health professionals, he followed his mother into the field of social work and today manages a warehouse where he employs people in the community who would otherwise find it very difficult to get a job — many with felony records and little work experience. James periodically shares with me the challenges he faces at work, and when I am not furious with his political positions, I am often moved by the sincerity with which he approaches his job. In every complex story, I hear him struggling to be fair, compassionate, and effective in his role. In short, James is complicated. But that did not prevent me from cutting off all communication with him when Trump was elected. After a short flurry of angry text messages, we didn’t speak for over a year.
James was not my only friend who voted for Trump. There was one more, the godfather of my 5-year-old son. Devin and I were in a Catholic religious order together, but after a few years, both of us left and started families. Born of a very conservative Irish Catholic father in upstate New York, Devin lost his mother to cancer when he was 13 and spent his teenage years helping to raise his two younger siblings. The loss of his mother left him devastated, angry at the universe, but also deeply empathetic toward others in pain. As he got older, he worked in camps and schools for disadvantaged youth and joined the Jesuits where he learned Spanish and worked in an outreach program for gang members in Los Angeles. After leaving the Jesuits, Devin attended law school and worked as public defender before starting his own practice in criminal defense. To this day, he offers skillful and passionate defense to a largely minority clientele. He will be the first to tell you that the justice system is rigged against those who can’t afford to navigate it.
Devin may seem an unlikely Trump voter, but he has always had a conservative streak in him. He looks to the past with a deep and persistent nostalgia, and with an ideological alloy that I imagine (rightly or wrongly) was melded together from love for his father and the loss of his mother. As a voter, he doesn’t identify with either party and has voted against the party in power in every election since 2000 (Bush, Kerry, Obama, Romney, Trump). This year, Devin will break his oppositional streak and vote for Trump’s second term, so disillusioned has he become with progressivism.
When Trump was elected, and I backed away from James, I directed all my despair at Devin, pouring out my disgust for his choice in long argumentative text messages. Over the past four years, we’ve debated all the issues you would imagine — Kavanaugh, kids in cages, global warming, Black Lives Matter, abandonment of the Kurds. On some level, I naively believed that it was just some big misunderstanding — that if I explained to Devin where he was in error, he would see things more clearly and repent of his decision to vote for Trump. What I found, of course, was that his convictions were as deep as my own, and that they rested on a narrative just as elaborately constructed. What was most surprising was to learn that images like the ones that moved me — a black boy looking up at the brilliant, dignified, compassionate face of President Obama, Blasey Ford courageously testifying before congress, gay men and women sharing their joy at being married or having a child — did little or nothing for him. His affections, his worldview, were grounded in emotional fault lines that were equally poignant to him, but inaccessible to me.
As Devin and I engaged and retreated from our often painful verbal exchanges, I gradually came to focus my attention on a simple idea that has subsequently changed how I see politics. Neither you or I, nor James or Devin, nor the millions of people who attack one another each day on social media choose to see the world as they do. But in the increasingly tiresome drama of public discourse we pretend to three related and destructive illusions: 1) that we are the authors of our worldview; 2) that our worldview is uniquely reasonable; and 3) that people who see the world differently are making a terrible and voluntary error.
We don’t choose our worldview
I suspect that many readers (whether liberal or conservative) will find this idea odd, offensive, or irrelevant. What’s the point of saying that people don’t choose their worldviews? Are white supremacists not responsible for being white supremacists? Don’t we make a moral choice when we align ourselves with one party or another? These are good questions. But before I address them, I want to try to convince you of the basic premise — that you did not choose to see the world as you do. I have to anticipate some of your objections so let me just tell you how this conversation often goes:
Me: “I want to prove to you that you don’t choose your worldview.”
Other: “Okay…” (willing to humor Ned).
Me: “Okay, so consider the political belief that you hold most strongly but that some other Americans oppose just as strongly. It can be about abortion, universal healthcare, immigration. Whatever you feel really deeply about.”
Me: “And for the next 10 minutes, I want you to do everything you can so that you end up holding the opposite belief when your time is up.”
Other: “Mmm…. Obviously that’s not possible.”
Me: “Do you need more time? Ten minutes is not a lot of time. What if I give you until tomorrow or next week.”
Me: “So you hold this belief strongly (a belief that others oppose just as strongly) but you see no way you could change it, no matter how much you want to.”
Other: “But I don’t want to change the belief. It’s really quite important to me.”
Me: “Okay. That is a major barrier. You have a strong belief and it’s one that you value a great deal. But let’s say you did want to change it. Let’s say a terrorist captured you, put a gun to your head, and told you: ‘If you don’t find some way to change this belief you hold, I will kill you and your family.’ Sorry, I know that’s a bit dramatic. But could you describe the steps that you would take to accomplish that?”
Many people can’t imagine the steps that would make them change their belief. But others try. These folks invariably imagine they would need to immerse themselves in the experience of people who hold beliefs different than their own.
Me: “How long would you need to accomplish that work?” I ask.
Other: “A long time,” they respond.
Me: “One year, ten years? At the end of ten years of devoting your life to deeply understanding and empathizing with people who hold a political belief opposite to your own, do you think your belief would have changed?”
Other: “Maybe a little. But no….not really.”
Me: “Would anything have changed?”
Other: “I’d probably have a bit better understanding and empathy for people who believe differently than I do.”
Me: “Well that’s something. But the project would have failed. And after 10 years, I would have proved my point.”
Other: “What point?”
Me: “That you don’t choose your worldview.”
Other: “But I’ve done a lot of things in my life that have contributed to the way I see the world today.”
Me: “You mean you’ve made voluntary choices in the past that have led to the belief that you have today?”
Me: “But what if I had asked you to perform the thought experiment we did today one year ago? Five years ago? When you were 30, 20, 18, 15? At any point in your past would you have been able to change your most strongly held beliefs?”
Other: “I guess not. But maybe there are some beliefs that have become strong over time that I could have changed if you had intervened back then.”
Me: “So if you were inclined, say, to support citizenship for the Dreamers or their deportation but you hadn’t given the issue a lot of thought. And I said, ‘Okay, take that weakly held belief and, I want you to do everything you can to make sure the inclination changes in the opposite direction,’ you could do it? And if you kept putting in effort, you could get the opposite belief to solidify and become a strongly held belief such that you would, in effect, have chosen how to view the Dreamers issue.”
Here there are a mix of responses because the new thought experiment sounds plausible, but it also sounds fishy — a fishiness resulting from the fact that we simply never perform this kind of effort. We don’t take something that we are inclined to believe and avidly work to believe the opposite, not at least for the simple purpose of demonstrating our freedom to choose our worldview. There are cases (which I won’t go into) in which we might work to rid ourselves of a belief, but the motivations to do so are also a given part of our lives — meaning that when we work to support or renounce a belief, we are operating on other motives or aspects of our worldview that we did not purposely throw into the mix. The strong currents, weak currents, and cross currents of conviction that shape our worldviews form the basis for the choices we make but are themselves given, not chosen.
Once I’d considered that James, Devin, and I did not choose to see the world as we do, I stopped spending so much time furious with them and started asking questions — attempting to understand what contributed to and currently motivates their conservative worldviews. I know that relaxing my anger may seem like a morally risky move. Isn’t outrage the appropriate response to kids being torn from their parents or conservatives’ calculated assault on women’s reproductive rights? Yes. When I situate myself squarely in my worldview, there is no justifiable response to these issues other than outrage. But as a therapist (my day job), I have come to believe that we can empathize with people we disagree with without compromising our own moral convictions.
What empathy is and what it is not
Empathy is not agreement, endorsement, compromise, or acquiescence. It is simply an accurate feel for the inner workings of another person — the way that their experience, beliefs, thoughts, and emotions interact and inform their choices. Empathy is always partial since we cannot fully inhabit another’s experience. But accurate empathy can help us understand where someone is coming from and foresee where they are going. Empathy need not affect our moral judgments, nor decrease the energy with which we pursue what we believe to be good. It does, however, change the way we see and communicate with people who disagree with us.
When empathy is absent in a relationship, we tend to caricature and vilify one another. Liberals assume that all conservative policies are motivated by racism and conservatives assume that all liberal policies are motivated by communism. Racism and communism share an important characteristic. Each is an illegitimate political motivation in American democracy. As conservatives and liberals have elaborated and rehearsed their vilifying narratives, it has led left and right to argue not against the ideas of the party but against the legitimacy of any political power they hold.
Although Trump was legally elected, Republicans argue, Democrats have spent the last four years challenging his legitimacy with the Mueller investigation, impeachment, and by a persistent appeal to the 2016 popular vote, proudly proclaiming Trump as #notmypresident. Obama, on the other hand, faced the birther conspiracy, countless committee investigations, and a six-year legislative stonewalling that robbed him of any capacity to lead our country. Each of these issues can be litigated independently but the fact remains that the liberals and conservatives increasingly see one another as bad actors who, like terrorists, are incapable of good faith negotiation.
There have always been delegitimizing narratives coming from the edges of the political parties. But the center of American politics seems to be shrinking by the day. Americans on both sides of the political spectrum are afraid that their candidate will not be recognized as a legitimate president, even if duly elected — that real and potentially successful attempts are being made to steal the election.
If you’re liberal like me, I know this feels like a horribly false comparison. What have Democrats done which could possibly be compared to Trump’s attacks on the electoral process or Republican attempts to suppress voting? But conservatives feel similar outrage that liberals are using the pandemic to push universal mail-in voting — tilting the playing field in Democrats’ favor. And once they take control of the government, Republicans fear, Democrats will make DC and Puerto Rico states, relax immigration laws, and push to naturalize as many newcomers as possible — all efforts to solidify power and transform America into a liberal socialist democracy which no longer prioritizes personal liberty. Both sides are increasingly convinced that the opposition is out to steal the game rather than playing by the rules.
For most of my life, I believed unconsciously that America’s institutions were immune to the degradation caused by the politics of raw power. But as we approach election day, I have vacillated between fear that the American political system is unravelling and hope that there is enough strength in the bones and sinews of our institutions to see us through one more contentious election. And while I will certainly feel relief if the election passes uneventfully, I am concerned that the politics of raw power will continue to polarize America until we have a future election that is not decided peacefully — that ends in a cold or smoldering civil war.
As I see it, the only thing that can prevent the degradation of the American political system is the re-establishment of a political center — a center based in empathetic discourse. I know that this is not a popular position. How could empathy be popular in such a violently polarized country? But I also know that I am not the only person who has grown tired of living in a country of angels and devils — where we lionize people who agree with us and demonize people who don’t, where biased news outlets and siloed media consumers are locked in a Pavlovian symphony of mutual reinforcement, outrage driving ratings and ratings driving outrage. And I know I am not the only person who wants to approach elections without worrying that the electoral process will result in uncertain or violent outcomes.
Pulling back from divorce
There is no doubt that my motivation to find a center in American politics derives from my experience as a couple’s therapist. Couples often come to therapy with such conviction that they are right and their partner is wrong that mutual understanding seems impossible. Like the left and right in American politics, they present with such powerful narratives of blame and vilification, that it can be difficult to play any kind of mediating role. But marriage generally has two things working in its favor: first, the couple, however conflictual, is very attached to one another — they share an interwoven life that includes threads of history, friends, families, children, and finances. When they come to therapy, they are locked in conflict but generally want to avoid the brutal tearing involved in divorce. Second, the partners are so starved for empathy from one another that when they get a taste of it, there can be an immediate sense of relief. That doesn’t mean there won’t be hard fought struggles ahead but that the process of rebuilding empathy can be reinforcing from early on.
When marital conflicts escalate, there is often a run-away feedback loop at the center. It’s not difficult to be compassionate towards our spouses when their quirks and vulnerabilities are non-threatening. But sometimes, our partner’s attempt to cope with vulnerability triggers one of our own. Our way of coping exacerbates their distress and intensifies their coping behaviors. The cycle grows more intense with each revolution and can lead to toxic, destructive conflicts.
The classic example of a toxic marital feedback loop is the “pursuer/avoider” conflict. The pursuer seeks security through connection and feels anxious or angry when they perceive a loss of connection. The avoider seeks security through independence and feels anxious or angry when they see their partner encroaching on their autonomy. You see the problem. When the pursuer is anxious, they seek connection, causing anxiety in the avoider. The avoider copes by withdrawing, exacerbating the pursuer’s loss of connection. And so on.
When life is good, couples who have opposing tendencies toward connection and autonomy can complement one another. One might be more successful in work while the other nurtures a satisfying social network which benefits both partners. But couples face major stressors together — financial difficulties, mental or physical illness, and losses of every kind. The accumulation of stress can trigger the pursuer/avoider conflict and cause significant marital distress in an otherwise stable and loving relationship.
Imagine, for example, that one of the partners loses their job and they are faced each day with hard choices about where to cut expenses, what necessities or opportunities they can no longer provide themselves or their children. In such a situation, the avoider is likely to withdraw, to speak less, to repress or numb their emotions, and to try to solve the problem internally. The pursuer generally wants to talk, to process their emotions, and to develop a solution together with their partner. As the pursuer pours out their anxiety, the avoider might respond with irritability or anger, which can in turn anger or upset the pursuer.
A preference for connection or autonomy is not superficial. It is rooted deeply in our personalities and comprises one foundational element of our worldviews. When a couple comes to therapy, they don’t just bring a toxic pattern of behavior; they bring complex narratives to explain themselves and their partner which sometimes diverge so completely, you might think they were describing different relationships. In our example, the avoider might complain that the job loss has been difficult enough without the pursuer’s constant inquisitions. They might describe the pursuer as anxious, controlling, and unrelenting. The pursuer might complain that the avoider won’t talk or express their emotions — that they are sullen and withdrawn, maybe even deceptive. Often, therapy begins with one or both partners attempting to establish their narrative and their partner’s perceived pathology as the context of the therapeutic work.
The pursuer/avoider conflict is never more than one dimension of a complex partnership, and there are often individual mental health problems like anxiety, depression, and addiction interwoven into the pursuer/avoider dynamic. But the simplistic case I’ve described is meant to illustrate two key points. First, a person’s relative valuing of autonomy or connection, and their default tendency toward one or the other in times of stress, is as involuntary as their height or hair color. Second, the tension between autonomy and connection cannot be resolved by endorsing one or the other. Autonomy and connection are crucial elements in any relationship that must be held in creative tension. Autonomy unbalanced by connection leads to permanent separation. Connection unbalanced by autonomy leads to toxic enmeshment and a loss of self.
I am not at all suggesting that people’s political views map onto their preference for autonomy or connection in marriage. That is clearly false. What I am suggesting is that the polarization between left and right is driven by multiple interrelated feedback loops which are threatening to tear apart our country. These feedback loops have siphoned away nearly all empathetic political discourse and left the American public faced with a barrage of false choices. We can have liberty or a social safety net. We can support the advancement of black people or law enforcement. We can build a wall at the southern border or open the border to all comers. We can protest peacefully or lament the violent destruction of property. We can spend 100 trillion dollars to stem climate change or deny it and do nothing.
In order to re-establish a political center in America, we need to realize that we didn’t create our worldviews. We didn’t etch beneath our skin and bones the emotional fault lines that erupt when we talk about race, poverty, liberty, inequity, immigration, taxes, abortion, gender, religion, or any of the other topics that exercise us. We were all born with characteristics and circumstances that have shaped the way we see the world.
Despite our differences in worldview, we find ourselves citizens of a country remarkable in its wealth and freedoms, a country that is very young by historical standards, but the oldest experiment in modern democracy. Politics is our ongoing imagination of what it means to share in this American identity and experiment with self-rule. If we become too divided in our political fantasies, if we lose all shared vision of what is to be American, this democratic experiment will fail the way that marriages fail — because there is no longer any shared vision to unite us. What is worse, it will suggest that sustained democracy may be impractical for country as diverse as America.
As you read this essay, you may be able to answer questions that I can only speculate about. Did we know who won by the time we went to bed on November 3rd? Were there widespread claims of election fraud? Did the states certify their results? Will the election be decided by the Supreme Court? Will the candidates and their supporters accept the final results peacefully?
Like many Americans, I am eager to know the answers to these questions. But at a deeper level, I am waiting to see if America will rebuild its center or I will spend the second half of my life watching our country tear itself apart. I do not believe, as I did when I was young, that American democracy is destined to survive. But if it does, I believe it will happen because we weary of outrage and rediscover our capacity to listen to, understand, and value people whose worldview is different than our own.